x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 19 February 2018

ISIL militants firm up control of Iraq-Syria border

It came the same day that US defence secretary Ash Carter said the takeover of Ramadi showed that Iraqi forces 'showed no will to fight' – the harshest assessment yet from a high-ranking Obama administration official.

A rebel fighter during clashes with forces loyal to Syria’s president Bashar Al Assad on the frontline of Aleppo’s Sheikh Saeed neighbourhood on May 23, 2015. Regime forces are fighting the Free Syrian Army as well as ISIL in Syria’s civil war. Hosam Katan/Reuters
A rebel fighter during clashes with forces loyal to Syria’s president Bashar Al Assad on the frontline of Aleppo’s Sheikh Saeed neighbourhood on May 23, 2015. Regime forces are fighting the Free Syrian Army as well as ISIL in Syria’s civil war. Hosam Katan/Reuters

BAGHDAD // ISIL took full control of a border crossing between Iraq and Syria on Sunday, tightening its grip on the heart of its self-proclaimed caliphate.

The move gave the militants control of the two main roads between Syria and Iraq’s province of Anbar, and comes a week after the group captured the Iraqi city of Ramadi and days after it seized the historic Syrian city of Palmyra – two of its most significant military victories in almost a year.

Also on Sunday, US defence secretary Ash Carter said the takeover of Ramadi showed that Iraqi forces “showed no will to fight”. It was the harshest assessment yet from a high-ranking Obama administration official.

Speaking to CNN’s State of the Union TV show, Mr Carter said, “They were not outnumbered ... In fact, they vastly outnumbered the opposing force. ”

ISIL’s recent successes have raised further questions about the efficiency of the US-led coalition’s eight-month air campaign.

Coalition warplanes have conducted more than 3,000 strikes in Iraq and Syria since August 2014 and dozens more were carried out in recent days in a bid to contain the extremists.

Mr Carter defended the use of US airstrikes as an effective part of the fight against ISIL but said they were not a replacement for Iraqi forces defending their country.

“We can participate in the defeat of ISIL,” he said. “But we can’t make Iraq ... a decent place for people to live – we can’t sustain the victory, only the Iraqis can do that.”

ISIL fighters seized Al Walid border post on Sunday when Iraqi government forces pulled back to a nearby crossing with Jordan. The group had taken the Syrian side of the crossing on Thursday.

“There was no military support for the security forces and there weren’t enough of them to protect the crossing,” Suad Jassem, the head of Anbar’s border commission, said.

“Daesh [ISIL] now controls both sides of both crossings,” she said, referring to another crossing between Anbar and Syria further north that the extremists seized last year.

There were seven in Anbar alone in a period of 24 hours straddling May 22-23 as Iraqi government and allied forces began to claw back territory from ISIL east of Ramadi.

Swift action was seen as essential to prevent ISIL from laying booby traps across Ramadi, which would make any advance in the city more risky and complicated.

In Syria, ISIL supporters and a monitoring group said the militants shot down a government helicopter near the Kweyris air base in Aleppo province on Sunday, but state media said the aircraft had suffered technical problems.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights director Rami Abdel Rahman said at least one crew member had been killed but “the fate of the rest is unknown”.

However, militant accounts on Twitter said ISIL had shot down the helicopter using anti-aircraft missiles. “A helicopter crashed after takeoff from Kweyris airport in Aleppo province because of technical faults and the crew were killed,” reported Syrian state TV.

Meanwhile, a Syrian official said the army was deploying troops in areas near the ancient town of Palmyra in preparation for a counterattack to retake the city from ISIL.

Governor Talal Barazi of the central province of Homs, which includes Palmyra, said on Sunday “there is planning, God willing, for a military action in the surroundings of Palmyra” adding it was not yet clear when the attack will be launched.

He also said ISIL members have “committed mass massacres in the city of Palmyra” since they captured it on Wednesday.

Syria’s state media reported on Sunday that ISIL fighters have executed at least 400 people in Palmyra since the fall of Palmyra.

It was not immediately possible to verify the account, but it was consistent with reports by activists that the extremists had carried out executions in the ancient city.

“The terrorists have killed more than 400 people .. and mutilated their bodies, under the pretext that they cooperated with the government and did not follow orders,” Syria’s state news agency said, citing residents inside the city.

* Agence France-Presse, Associated Press and Reuters